Monday, November 5, 2012

Jay's Movie of the Week #44: 9/11: Day That Changed The World & 9/11: Stories In Fragments

Slightly belated, but here's a double feature of documentaries originally reviewed for Dvdsnapshot

Our Take:

Like every American, I vividly remember my 9/11/01. Seeing CNN footage of the first burning tower on television at my new part-time job, in a cafeteria at Universal Studios theme park decorated with Dr. Seuss characters, and not grasping the catastrophe that was starting. I didn't grasp, and it wasn't mentioned, that it was a 747. I also wasn't familiar with just how big those buildings were, so I made an assumption about flight plans and figured a prop plane, at most a small commuter jet, had collided with the building. Hearing news about a second plane while training for my new job. Finally being told the park would be closing, an unprecedented decision of caution, at noon so we could all head home. Going first to the television to see the churn of rerun footage while newscasters tried to grasp the events. Towers constantly, repeatedly falling. Jumping online to the now archaic message board where all my dear college friends touched base and worried about Ali getting home to Jersey, and Liz's cousins based in the same area of Manhattan. The growing dread of knowing profound change is happening, the future is uncertain (and moving to a tourism based economy the month prior was, in retrospect, a bad idea). My story of that day is small. My mundane details seared into memory by large, tragic world events. These documentaries share the big stories.
The first of this pair of Smithsonian Channel documentaries is 9/11: Day That Changed The World. Starting at 6AM and ending at Midnight, it reconstructs the day through archival video, radio transmissions, narration by Martin Sheen, and interviews with people caught up in the events. The morning's normalcy is mentioned then quickly dispensed with, perhaps since living memory is far too powerful to accommodate such minutia. The fast, inexorable march of history is captured here in a way we rarely get to see. Genuine and confused reactions of witnesses remind us what the expression “dawning realization” really means. From President Bush processing information while gallantly trying to not upset schoolchildren to the many uplifted faces on shocked pedestrians, hands covering their mouths in shock, video captures immediate emotional impacts. Revisiting the footage, including some I've strenuously spent a decade avoiding of people falling from the burning buildings, I became so caught up I clapped a hand over my own gasp. (I've also never watched United 93, and never plan to.)

What's so strongly illustrated here is that in-the-moment tumble of actions taken while not knowing what will unfold. The fear of the unpredictable becomes a concern closed and set aside after events. During them, however, it is a terrifying thing. That visceral tension makes the first half of this surprisingly difficult viewing. Focusing on one day, and not everything since, makes for some powerful storytelling.

The second presentation, 9/11: Stories in Fragments is a more narrowly focused on aftermath and “the debris left behind,” now in the Smithsonian's collection. The museum seized the moment in history and immediately started collecting artifacts and learning the stories behind them.

Here are presented ID cards, fragments of plane, wall clocks; stuff extracted from the rubble. Nametags from the Pentagon dead. A stewardess call button from Flight 93. Also here are people telling their stories regarding the items they donated. Ted Olson's office phone on which he received the his wife Barbara's last phone call from Flight 77. Matthew Farley desperately texting coworkers still inside the building from his donated Blackberry on the street below. The abandoned briefcase returned to Lisa Lefler after she followed her gut and evacuated the Tower she never imagined would collapse, now battered and dusty (and one of the few object to survive the collapse intact).

Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer and Documentarian Jules Naudet never expected to wander into history while out checking on an simple gas leak near the site. They saved lives and captured Ground Zero footage (when Naudet's 9/11 screened I was surprised when they entered the lobby, as it was my first-ever view of the inside of these buildings). Thoughtful interviews entwine with breathlessly-paced narration, making for a compelling, respectful accounting of the fateful day's events. From this humane perspective, these innocuous objects become powerful relics.

Official Synopsis:

Defining moments. Untold stories.

Four airplanes. Nearly three-thousand victims. One unimaginable tragedy. The terrible events of September 11, 2001 will never be forgotten. Two original documentaries commemorate the most significant and tragic day in modern American history.

9/11: Day That Changed The World
Intimate accounts from the leaders on that fateful day reveal how our nation's key decision makers responded to a crisis that was beyond the scope of anyone's experience. Featuring interviews with Rudy Giuliani, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Laura Bush and more.

9/11: Stories in Fragments
How do you grasp an event as enormous as September 11? At the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, you start small: a briefcase, a Blackberry, a hero's nametag. These tragic treasures and personal stories reveal the extraordinary power of ordinary objects.

Special Features:
Presented in widescreen with Dolby Digital Stereo sound, but there are no other extras on this disc. The first documentary is 91 minutes long, the second is 46.

The Smithsonian Channel's vivid and detailed 9/11: Day That Changed The World is an immediate, effective recounting of the day's unfolding, one that may be unpleasant viewing for many. 9/11: Stories in Fragments is a strong companion piece, focusing in on individual stories that illuminate the bigger picture.

Overall Picture:
Movie: A, A-
Extras: F

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